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How David O. Russell ‘Grew Up’ to Become the Ultimate Actors’ Director

He used to be known for his run-ins with actors, but David O. Russell's recent success has put him in a select group that includes Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet


Has David O. Russell become one of the greatest actors' directors in Hollywood history?

By leading his actors to three acting nominations for 2010's "The Fighter" and four more for 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook," Russell has put his name in a rare group.

He's only the ninth director to score at least seven acting nominations for two consecutive movies; Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet, Herbert Ross, Warren Beatty and James L. Brooks equaled his feat, while William Wyler set the record with eight nominations between "The Little Foxes" in 1941 and "Mrs. Miniver" in 1942. (See chart below.)

Russell's method of working with actors is different from most directors – "weird and instantaneous," in the words of Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for Best Actress for "Silver Linings."

He watches the scene from a vantage point close to the actors rather than behind a monitor, sometimes offering suggestions while the cameras roll.

“Every time we would do a take, it was performed completely differently,” Lawrence told TheWrap. “You would say a line, and he would be like, ῾Say it in a different way! Pretend you misunderstood him! … Stuff like that.”

The success with actors is a far cry from the early days of Russell's career, when he directed well-received movies but was also known for fiery disagreements with George Clooney (on "Three Kings") and Lily Tomlin (on "I Heart Huckabees"). TheWrap spoke to Russell about his process this week, and found that he had no idea about the company he is now keeping.

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Those seven acting nominations for your last two movies put you in pretty illustrious company: Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Elia Kazan, William Wyler, Warren Beatty…
Wow. That is amazing. I didnt know that, but luckily for me, those happen to be some of my favorite directors. So thats really cool. When I work with actors, I want personality, and thats what I love about Lumet, or Nichols, or Kazan, or Beatty. All their actors performances are very personal and very specific.

The person is the thing. And people are what interest me in this new chapter of my work. Im interested in the personalities and the way they talk and move and hope and cry and put their hearts on the line.

You had some notable run-ins with actors earlier in your career. How did you go from that to becoming an actor‘s director?
I think I grew up in a number of ways. I was less confident as a filmmaker and less confident as an adult. I was less confident in my own skin and in my dealings with people. And I wasn't as clear about knowing what the movie was and knowing how to start my relationship with the actors. Those are two big things, and if youre not clear about them youre already at a big disadvantage.

There are moments when were not going to know what were doing, but those moments have to take place under an umbrella of warm, good, grounded, grown-up confidence. I didnt have that before, and it led to those problems and caused immeasurable amounts of pain to me and to others.

And it stopped your career for a while.
My having struggled for some years has somehow made me a humbler, simpler person, and director, and got me closer to the characters that I want the actors to portray. It kind of resulted in this chapter of my work that is direct and confident.

If you know what you want, or if you don't know yet but you're coming from your heart and your gut, then people feel that. And I would say that's probably the most important thing, that immediacy, that rawness, that directness, that personalness.

You have to show every single actor that you want to go the distance for them and their character. And that is something, as much as I respect and am grateful for the earlier movies, I feel like I left money on the table. There were missed opportunities. Now I would go, "Wait a minute, have we squeezed everything we could out of this character or this actor?"

What is the key to starting off on the right foot with an actor?
David O. RussellThe moment we meet, we begin this relationship that is very personal and has a warmth and humanness to it — and intention. Im honest about who I am and what Im after in terms of a voice and a person.

And I welcome their feelings and questions, together with the sense that this is a very special thing were doing. There has to be that excitement and passion and desire — I want them to feel that from me, and I want to feel that from them. I'm willing to embrass myself, or to show them my humanness myself, and that allows them to show their humanness.

I would say the most important thing is feeling that I know what I want to do. It's very specific, it's very personal, it's very emotional to me. And I'm very confident in them, even before they are. Even if there are moments of not knowing what we're doing, I'm comfortable with those moments. They don't cause anxiety or panic.

Did they used to cause panic?
Well, I know what it's like to go down a road making a movie when you don't know your target starting out. That's a much harder way to make a movie, and I don't want to do that. I want to at least know the voice or the feeling that I love.

And I do mean the word love. For me, that's been the great discovery of the last two movies: I have great passion and love for the worlds and the characters. And I love each character as I would my own son, for better or worse. That means you hate them sometimes a little bit, but I can take the view of any character in the movie and see the whole movie from their point of view.

David O. RussellWhen you get on the set, youre known for positioning yourself close to the actors and giving directions as the camera is rolling.
When we first read the scene together, whether it’s in a room or on the set, very often that’s when it comes to life. And when we get on the set to put it on its feet, we may work out the blocking in a very general sense, and then I’ll just start shooting the rehearsal.

There’s a looseness that comes with that, because I will talk to them as I would during a rehearsal. I might say, “Try it like this” or “How about that?”

And then as we keep going, eventually there are long sections where I’m not saying a word. If I throw a word in later, it’s out of sense of joy or enjoyment or excitement. So in the flow of it, I might say “Try it quiet” or “What if you hit that word harder?” or “What if you said this word instead?”

When I spoke to Jennifer, she talked about the scene between her and Bradley in the diner. She said at a certain point you asked them to slow the dialogue way down, and that it felt very strange and wrong to them at first but ended up being the right choice.
I remember it well. That scene is a very important scene. So much is happening: They're making a secret pact that is illegal, when she says she'll get a letter to his wife. And it's also an emotional pact. She's divulging things about herself. She's opening up and telling him about who she is and what happened to her.

The secrecy of the collusion, the intimacy of their deal, there was something hot about it. At the same time they were supposed to be working on getting the letter to his wife, they were really getting closer together. So that was the subtext.

So I said, "Let's do it in this more collusive, secretive way, like when you lean into somebody." And it took on a different feeling. That's where it took on an intensity and a hot intimacy.

Do you ever find actors who aren’t comfortable with your process?
That happened in my first three movies, but that’s because I didn’t figure it out before I made the movie the way I do now. Now I want to have that family feeling that we’re all in this together.

It’s also knowing when an actor doesn’t want to work in a certain way. You need to treat Robert De Niro very differently than you treat Bradley Cooper or Christian Bale or Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams. Some actors, I know that I must never speak to that actor about crying, because it’s going to make it hard for them to cry. That’s how I got De Niro to cry in this movie, because I never spoke to him about it, I never wrote it, and then it happened.

[Pause] I need to know when to back off and shut up; that’s a big part of it. It's probably not that different from being a coach on a good team. You need to know when to shut up and let the team struggle, and when to intervene and say, "Hold on, let's redirect what we're doing here."